New York University Professor Joseph LeDoux has won the William James Award, an annual book prize given by Division One of the American Psychological Association, for his work Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety (Viking). LeDoux, a professor in NYU’s Center for Neural Science, shares the honor with Pitzer College Psychology Professor David Moore.
The William James Award honors and publicizes a recent book that best serves to further the goals of the society by providing an outstanding example of an effort to bring together diverse subfields of psychology and related disciplines.
Anxiety disorders affect about 40 million American adults—about 20 percent of the U.S. population. Yet, despite its widespread occurrence, LeDoux argues that our approaches to fear and anxiety are off base. The prevailing view assumes that the same brain circuits give rise to conscious feelings of theses emotions—as well as the behavioral and physiological responses that often go with these. When a threat occurs the feeling and the body responses are both unleashed.
In Anxious, published in 2015, LeDoux posits that conscious feelings and body responses are controlled by different brain circuits, and failure to recognize this has led to inaccurate interpretations of research by him and by others in the field. By understanding the true nature of fear and anxiety in the brain, LeDoux writes, we can create a better roadmap for drug discovery and develop better methods for psychotherapy.
“This book is a model of deep, interpretive scholarship, reflective of a long and stellar career in the field,” the award committee said of the volume in announcing this year’s winners.
LeDoux, the founder of the Emotional Brain Institute who also has an appointment in NYU’s Department of Psychology, has worked on emotion and memory in the brain for more than 20 years. His research, mostly on fear, shows how we can respond to danger before we know what we are responding to. It has also shed light on how memories about threat are formed and stored in the brain. Through this research, LeDoux has mapped the underlying neural circuits through the brain, and has identified cells, synapses, and molecules that make this form of learning and memory possible.
In addition to numerous publications in scholarly journals, LeDoux, who is also a professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center, has published books that present his work to a wider audience. These include The Emotional Brain (Simon and Schuster, 1998), which focuses mainly on emotion, and Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are (Viking, 2002), which casts a broader net into the areas of personality and selfhood.